As our country looks to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must start connecting the dots between issues to formulate effective public policy. One place to start is housing. Indeed, increasing the availability of quality, affordable housing will be one of the key levers for advancing solutions to most of the key issues of the post-COVID era.
The pandemic has laid out in stark detail that public health relies on people having quality homes. COVID-19 has been more prevalent in places where more people are crowded into individual homes. It has nothing to do with the number of homes in an area (in fact, ZIP codes with more large housing units had some of the lowest disease rates). People who pay most of their paycheck toward housing and lost their jobs often had no way to keep their housing, much less adhere to “stay-at-home” orders. Widespread housing instability is a public health problem, whether or not we’re in the midst of a pandemic. And the communal cost of housing instability doesn’t stop there.
Broadening public funding at the federal, state, and local levels will directly impact the quantity and quality of housing stock.
Stable, decent-quality, and affordable housing also plays an integral role in ensuring Americans have access to job and educational opportunities in the first place. Business 101 says you need a product and someone to buy it. Without workers or customers—and without adequate housing options for these community members—local economies fail. When job centers lack affordable housing options, these workers have more difficulty keeping their jobs because people are much more likely to lose their job if they lose their home. Children do significantly better in school when their families have reliable homes. Put simply, affordable housing creates ladders of opportunity for communities.
At the same time, investing in affordable housing provides communities with multiple public safety dividends. Unaffordable, low-quality housing goes hand in hand with increased crime rates, and quality homes reverse that trend. Access to stable jobs, high-quality schools, and vibrant public spaces improves public safety. A growing body of research suggests that stable housing also significantly prevents people from committing crimes, and that recidivism increases when people can’t afford homes.
And while affordable housing helps communities at the local level thrive, it also has a global impact. Thoughtful housing policy can reduce greenhouse gases to help slow climate change. When affordable housing gets done right—for example, by prioritizing sustainable building practices and residential energy efficiency—everyone benefits. Even at the hyper-local level, affordable housing that helps reduce car commute times also improves air quality, reducing the likelihood of health problems like asthma, lung cancer, pregnancy complications, diabetes, and more. And while smart affordable housing policy can reduce climate change, this global phenomenon is currently reducing the number of affordable homes as the increase in extreme weather events destroys them.
Investing in affordable housing is one of the smartest policy moves we can make, but how can we do it? First and foremost, broadening public funding at the federal, state, and local levels will directly impact the quantity and quality of housing stock. There are also small regulatory changes, such as changing the financing requirements for affordable housing deals that could effectively double the production and preservation of affordable housing in high-need areas without costing taxpayers more. Encouraging flexibility among local governments can help affordable housing providers be more effective with existing funding. And getting the best and brightest minds to join the affordable housing industry to work to ensure all Americans have access to quality, affordable homes will have returns for generations to come.
If nothing else, this pandemic has revealed that all Americans, indeed all humans, are deeply connected. With this powerful reminder that our individual welfare is bound up in the welfare of everyone else, our country should be compelled to action. In the months and years ahead, as we look to close the range of gaps and weaknesses that have been exposed in our public health systems and our economy, we must recognize how the public policy challenges we face are connected. Focusing on and investing in affordable housing will advance progress on a range of these challenges, building stronger communities and improving life for all Americans.